Today a cabinet minister will make an historic announcement. Or at least it might be historic. You never know in Britain. Excuse the excitement and the follow up anti-climactic qualification, but today the Transport Secretary Lord Adonis unveils his detailed plans for a high-speed railway. His words might signal the beginning of something big or, quite possibly, nothing will happen. Like many journeys in this country no one is sure whether Adonis' revolutionary plans will reach their final destination.
The causes for concern are striking. When the economy was booming railways declined, reaching levels of Third World squalor and reliability. Now, as the country emerges tentatively from deep recession with big debts to re-pay, an expensive high-speed railway line is announced. The sequence makes no sense, but then reason plays little part in the history of investment in Britain's infrastructure.
Britain tends not to embark on ambitious new capital projects. It finds excuses not to do so. The Treasury wags its disapproving finger. The private sector runs away when it can see no quick, easy profit. Politicians fear they will be slaughtered for spending money and then will be out of power when a project is completed. So no project gets started. Adonis has concluded, for example, that it would have been cheaper and more effective to build a new west coast line from London to Glasgow instead of updating the existing one.
The prospect of building a new line was all too much for those involved. I have never understood the phobia. Whenever any British person travels in other European countries they rave about the transport, like someone living in the old Soviet Union realising there was an alternative when they visited the West.
One of my non -footballing memories from the last World Cup was the British journalists marvelling at the trains in Germany taking them to and from different stadiums and cities. They did not know such quality of life was available. I assume it is the suspicion of government intervention and any form of public spending in Britain that has prevented high-speed rail from getting the go-ahead here. In France they began work on their equivalent project in 1981.
Still, there is some cause for optimism this time around. In theory at least there is a political consensus in support of the project. To their credit the Conservatives declared their backing for high-speed trains before Labour. Their announcement was important. Gordon Brown watches them like a hawk. Brown has never shown much interest in transport, but he is obsessed about giving no space to the Tories. His backing would have been influenced by their support.
More recently the Tories have started to play games and Adonis is not sure now whether they will support his plan. As the Conservatives' approach to the economy has changed several times since David Cameron became leader, presumably they are quite capable of dumping their original enthusiasm for this. But if they win, the Conservatives will discover it is not easy to disown what was said in opposition. My sense is that in relation to the railways, the Conservatives' support is sincere. The Liberal Democrats also endorse high-speed rail.
Crucially, big spending is not required until around 2018. If the cash was needed tomorrow the project would be doomed, but it is not. The other rail project, Crossrail, will have been completed by then so there will not be an alternative drain on funds. This time it could really happen.
The announcement is a mini-triumph for Andrew Adonis, a minister who has transformed policy in two areas during his career in government, a unique achievement. Famously, as Schools Minister, he pioneered the City Academy programme, travelling around the country setting up the schools virtually single-handedly. Some academies have been more successful than others, and there remain complicated questions about the accountability of those that run them, but there is no question that he challenged the complacency of local authorities, and some of those running schools, and gave many pupils the chance of a better education than they would have got before he arrived energetically on the scene.
Now he tackles the railways, making it a condition with Gordon Brown on taking the job that he would get the chance to develop a high-speed line. He has been firm too with the railway companies that are happy to take big profits and then cry out for help when they face losses. Adonis has nationalised a railway company that wanted it both ways.
How odd the last few years have been. The cautious Alistair Darling has nationalised the banks. The supposedly ultra-Blairite Adonis has nationalised a train company. Politics is most interesting when stereotypes are challenged.
Adonis's creativity is striking; he a role model for future cabinet ministers. Nearly all cabinet ministers since 1997 have hidden nervously under the Blair/Brown duopoly and carried out orders, or acted in ways they thought would please one of them (some tried to please both and came unstuck, although quite a lot of them came unstuck by pleasing one and alienating the other).
Few of these technocratic administrators can claim association with distinctive lasting measures, ones that they initiated out of their own passionate interest and would not have happened in quite the same way, if at all, if they had not been there. In the current cabinet only Harriet Harman comes close with her Equalities bill. Historians will recognise that Ed Balls was a major policy-maker in terms of the economy. I can think of no one else who has pioneered distinctive policies to fruition. Most of them were grateful to be there after an eternity of opposition.
That is the key. Adonis could have followed other interests, returning to journalism and writing the biography of his political hero Roy Jenkins (an authorised task that has now been undertaken by the historian John Campbell). A minister is in a position to be assertive when he or she can turn away. Another key factor is to get the agreement of the Prime Minister to get on with specific projects. Obviously Blair encouraged him as Schools Minister, but he was wise to extract from Brown a commitment in relation to the railways and so he could arrive and get on with it – the first Transport Secretary for decades with an interest in transport.
Harman acquired the authority to act by following a very different route. She won an election and became deputy leader, the only minister in the cabinet to have won an internal contest with other candidates since Blair and Prescott triumphed in 1994. Adonis regrets not taking a similar electoral path, aware as a Roy Jenkins-style constitutional reformer that being a non-elected Lord is not the most authoritative of platforms on which to embark on various crusades. As Home Secretary in the 1960s, Jenkins was another of a breed that has since become increasingly rare – a Cabinet minister who made a distinct difference.
Adonis's place in history depends on whether his plans for high-speed rail become a reality. If Cameron wins the election it is said that he would happily let him continue in the post. Adonis for his part would turn down any such invitation. So let us hope that the cross-party consensus survives the dual onslaught of an election campaign and a fragile economy. In Britain an ambitious long-term plan needs all the help it can get.Reuse content